6 Minute English
Are trees intelligent?
Episode 201217 / 17 Dec 2020
According to Suzanne Simard, one of the world’s leading tree researchers, trees should be seen as intelligent. Neil and Georgina talk about trees and how they can communicate and help each other as well as recognise family members.
This week's question
What is the world’s largest currently living tree? Is it...
a) a baobab tree?
b) a giant redwood tree?
c) a sequoia tree?
Listen to the programme to find out the answer.
drawing that shows the relationships between the different members of a family
very young plants that have grown from seeds
someone’s children, or the young of an animal or plant
family and relatives (old-fashioned)
ability to act and affect your environment
everything that happens to someone during their life, including what will happen in the future
Note: This is not a word-for-word transcript
Hello. This is 6 Minute English from BBC Learning English. I’m Neil.
And I’m Georgina.
How did you spend your free time during the weeks of lockdown, Georgina? Repainting the living room? Or doing exercise classes in the kitchen?
Actually, Neil, I’ve been doing some online research into my family history. I’m investigating my family tree – you know, a drawing showing all the relationships between the different members of my family.
Ah, how interesting! And how appropriate - because trees are the subject of this programme – not family trees but real, living-in-the-forest trees.
Well, Neil, this might surprise you but according to some people, trees also have families. There are mother trees who support and help feed child trees.
That’s right. According to Suzanne Simard, one of the world’s leading tree researchers, trees should be seen as intelligent. They communicate with each other. They help each other. And as you mentioned, Georgina, they can even tell their family members.
So a tree can have its own family tree – amazing! Tell me more.
OK, Georgina, but first let me ask you my quiz question. The largest trees in a wood or forest are called ‘mother trees’. As they’re the biggest, mother trees usually have the longest, most connected roots. So my question is this – what is the world’s largest currently living tree? Is it:
a) a baobab tree?,
b) a giant redwood tree?, or,
c) a sequoia tree?
Hmmm… I’ve seen photos of redwood trees in California and they’re huge, so I’ll say b) a giant redwood.
OK Georgina, I’m sure you only chose that cause it’s the easiest one to pronounce but we’ll find out the answer at the end of the programme. Now let’s get back to that tree researcher, Suzanne Simard.
Her big idea was the ‘wood wide web’ – a way of describing the network of underground roots linking trees to other trees of the same family.
Here’s Suzanne explaining more about tree families to BBC World Service programme, The Big Idea:
We found that the parent trees would favour those seedlings that were of their own kin versus the strangers.
That’s extraordinary – and when you say they favour their own family members, you mean they’ll send more nutrients to their offspring than they would to, as it were, a stranger tree?
Mother trees send food and nutrients to their own seedlings – young plants that have been grown from a seed.
In this way, parent trees help their offspring – another word for their children, or young. Mother trees can recognise and feed other trees of their own kin – an old fashioned word meaning family.
With the extra nutrients and carbon they receive, the offspring can extend their own root network and suck up even more nutrients…
…which in turn increases their own growth, turning some of them into the giants we see growing in California and other parts of the world.
Amazing! With trees behaving in clever ways like this it’s no wonder Suzanne thinks they have intelligence.
And that’s not all. Listen again as Suzanne discusses the question of whether trees are ‘alive’ with BBC World Service’s, The Big Idea. See if you can hear her opinion.
Alive in the sense of having agency in their destinies, instead of being you know… I think a lot of people think of trees as just sort of like these sticks that grow out of the ground, they’re kind of these inert things that don’t have agency in their destiny, that they don’t change behaviours and make decisions but what we’re finding is that they do all that. And you know what step back and think trees have evolved over a long long long time, way longer than human beings and they have evolved in communities and they have to grow and survive.
I think Suzanne believes trees are alive and intelligent, because she says they have agency – a concept meaning having the ability to act and effect your environment.
Dying trees even seem to know the future – before they die, they warn their offspring to start making new root connections.
Showing that trees have some understanding of their destiny – everything that happens in someone’s life and what will happen in the future.
So it seems that trees are much more intelligent than we thought, Georgina.
It’s certainly going to change how I feel about going for a walk in the woods, surrounded by all those intelligent trees chatting to each other. I wonder if they have family arguments.
Ha. Well, I wouldn’t argue with one of those really gigantic tree, such as… well, Georgina, you tell me.
Ah, you mean your quiz question - about the largest living tree?
Exactly. What did you say?
I said the largest currently living tree was, b) a giant redwood. Was I correct, Neil?
Well, you got the ‘giant’ part right, Georgina, but in fact the answer was c) a giant sequoia named General Sherman. He lives in California’s Giant Forest, he’s a whopping 83 metres tall and measures a massive 33 metres around the trunk!
Wow! And I bet he has a huge family tree!
Ha-ha. Right then, Georgina, let’s recap the vocabulary we’ve used discussing intelligent trees, starting with family tree – a diagram showing the relationships between family members.
Trees are intelligent enough to communicate with their children, or offspring. These young plants which have grown from seeds are also known as seedlings.
Another word we learned is kin – an old-fashioned way of saying family.
According to tree expert Suzanne Simard, trees have agency – a term describing the ability to act and influence your surroundings.
And the fact that trees make all kinds of decisions about their lives suggests they understand their destiny - everything that happens to someone during their life, including in the future.
Thank you for joining our walk through the woods of English vocabulary. Remember you can find more topical discussion on our website…
…as well as a whole forest of English language resources at bblearningenglish.com. Goodbye for now.
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Do you always agree with what most people in your group say? Neil and Sophie discuss staff meetings.
Episode 160407 / 07 Apr 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the health benefits of being able to speak two languages fluently. And Neil... speaks Japanese!
Episode 160331 / 31 Mar 2016
How often do you check your phone? Neil and Sophie discuss how social media is changing the way we interact.
Episode 160324 / 24 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil discover that soil has some surprising qualities and discuss how growing food can be therapeutic too
Episode 160317 / 17 Mar 2016
Sophie and Neil talk about traditional fairy tales for the adult market and teach you some magical vocabulary
Episode 160310 / 10 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss the growing industry of team building – from zombie bootcamps to horse training for executives.
Episode 160303 / 03 Mar 2016
Neil and Sophie discuss Mars, the fourth rock from the Sun
Episode 160225 / 25 Feb 2016
Neil and Sophie talk about gene editing, designer babies and how many errors Neil might have in his genetic code.
Episode 160218 / 18 Feb 2016
How generous are you? Neil and Sophie discuss Mark Zuckerberg and what it takes to be a modern-day philanthropist.
Episode 160211 / 11 Feb 2016
Are the days of paying by cash for a latte or a newspaper nearly gone? Alice and Neil discuss Neil's fondness for loose change...
Episode 160204 / 04 Feb 2016
Tea comes in different forms – milky, sweet or spicy. Alice and Neil discuss how this Asian leaf conquered the world.
Episode 160128 / 28 Jan 2016
Train, car, bicycle ... Hundreds of millions of us make the same journey day in day out. Take a hike with Alice and Neil and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 160121 / 21 Jan 2016
Are food allergies on the increase and if so, why? Neil and Alice talk about the growing fear of food and teach new words.
Episode 160114 / 14 Jan 2016
Are artificial lights and late night TV ruining our sleep? Neil and Alice discuss the issue and teach you related vocabulary.
Episode 160107 / 07 Jan 2016
What does it take to be a good interviewer? Neil and Alice discuss TV chat show hosts and teach you some related vocabulary.
Episode 151231 / 31 Dec 2015
How much does appearance really matter? Neil and Alice discuss fitness and New Year's resolutions
Episode 151224 / 24 Dec 2015
Some families struggle to buy even food and can’t afford presents. Neil and Alice discuss how some charities are helping those in need.
Episode 151217 / 17 Dec 2015
Alice and Finn talk about the passion some people have for danger and the unseen threats we face every day
Episode 151210 / 10 Dec 2015
Alice and Neil discuss the psychological pressures of going to university. They also teach some related vocabulary.
Episode 151203 / 03 Dec 2015
Neil and Alice discuss the long-lasting appeal of this man with a bow and how he has changed over the centuries
Episode 151126 / 26 Nov 2015
Do you know how much your partner earns? Is he or she in debt? Would this make you love them less?
Episode 151119 / 19 Nov 2015
The BBC broadcasts a season of programmes discussing women's issues around the world
Episode 151112 / 12 Nov 2015
Are you good at telling jokes? What makes a good comedian?
Episode 151105 / 05 Nov 2015
Should we all pay for supermarket plastic bags? Neil and Alice take a look at the environmental impact of plastic and teach you some related words.
Episode 151029 / 29 Oct 2015
Should the difficult language of Shakespeare be 'translated' into plain English?
Episode 151022 / 22 Oct 2015
The bicycle is the most popular form of two-wheeled transport in the world, but could we all soon be using hoverboards? Listen to Neil and Finn's conversation and learn some new words.
Episode 151015 / 15 Oct 2015
If you are sitting at a desk or answering the phone, stop for a moment and ask: could a robot or machine do this job better? Neil and Finn discuss the future of our jobs.
Episode 151008 / 08 Oct 2015
Neil and Alice discuss what kind of book people like to be seen reading. Do you like to impress people with a classic book in your hands?
Episode 151001 / 01 Oct 2015
Does being born in the summer reduce your chance of going to university?
Episode 150924 / 24 Sep 2015
Take a trip with Rob and Alice to find out about the Earth’s core. They’ll discuss how hot it is – and whether there are any dinosaurs living there!
Episode 150917 / 17 Sep 2015
Do you dress formally or casually? Do you choose trendy items or old comfortable ones? Rob and Will talk about the meaning of clothes.
Episode 150910 / 10 Sep 2015
It's been described as the world's largest and most democratic classical music festival. Neil and Finn guide you through the BBC Proms
Episode 150903 / 03 Sep 2015
What an awful sound - cracking your knuckles! Listen in to Rob and Neil to find out if it's a useful skill or just an annoying habit
Episode 150827 / 27 Aug 2015
Was Charles Darwin the only man with ideas about evolution? Rob and Neil talk about someone else who discovered it first.
Episode 150820 / 20 Aug 2015
What are the modern day dilemmas in using a lift? Rob and Neil discuss the awkwardness and irritation of being in one
Episode 150813 / 13 Aug 2015
Should young people be made to vote in elections or should we choose? We discuss the ideas behind compulsory voting
Episode 150806 / 08 Aug 2015
What do we need our chins for? Rob and Neil discuss how we got them and what our chins say about us
Episode 150730 / 30 Jul 2015
Why do gibbons sing duets and what has this got to do with the evolution of the human language?
Episode 150723 / 23 Jul 2015
Skinny models: What does the law say about walking the catwalk?
Episode 150716 / 16 Jul 2015
The dangers of computer games. How good are they for our health?
Episode 150709 / 09 Jul 2015
It's amazing! What part of our body have scientists discovered can heal and help us?
Episode 150702 / 02 Jul 2015
Do you chew gum and what do you do with it when you've finished? Listen to Rob and Finn discussing the history and chemical properties of gum and why it's messing up our streets whilst explaining some related vocabulary
Episode 150625 / 25 Jun 2015
Food banks provide food to people in the UK who can't afford to buy their own. Rob and Finn discuss this how they work and how they help many of the country's poorest
Episode 150618 / 18 Jun 2015
Listen to Neil and Rob discussing mood swings, risk taking, and why people make fun of teenagers, while they also explore some related vocabulary.
Episode 150611 / 11 Jun 2015
How can remote parts of the world get access to the internet? Neil and Catherine discuss a new idea for spreading knowledge
Episode 150604 / 04 Jun 2015
What makes us angry and why is aggression useful? Neil and Catherine discuss human behaviour.
Episode 150528 / 28 May 2015
Big bushy beards have become so fashionable that there's now an art exhibition dedicated to them
Episode 150521 / 21 May 2015
A London apartment block has front and back entrances for private and social housing - or so-called rich and poor doors. Does it make sense to you? Listen to a discussion whilst learning some housing-related vocabulary
Episode 150514 / 14 May 2015
Fifty years ago, on 18 March 1965, Soviet astronaut Alexei Leonov took the first space walk. Listen to Rob and Neil describing the struggles of that ground-breaking space mission whilst explaining some related vocabulary.
Episode 150507 / 07 May 2015
Furniture with built-in wireless charging technology - like a coffee table is now being sold. 'Built-in' means the technology is included as part of the table. So you just pop your phone on the table, and technology does the rest!
Episode 150430 / 30 Apr 2015
Many animals face extinction. But people are realising that they must act now to stop further losses. A scheme to save the Asian elephant in China could provide an answer.
Episode 150423 / 23 Apr 2015
How does music make you feel? Research shows that it actually influences us more than we realise - whether we're at the movies, the supermarket, or down the pub
Episode 150416 / 16 Apr 2015
Coffee is now the most popular drink in the world. But what about the economics and politics of coffee production? It's as complicated as getting the right flavour in your cup
Episode 150409 / 09 Apr 2015
Rob and Neil put on their sunglasses to find out more about this special star and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won’t be blinded with science!
Episode 150402 / 02 Apr 2015
The UK has become the first country to approve legislation allowing the creation of babies with genetic material from three people. Listen to Neil and Harry’s conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150326 / 26 Mar 2015
What are some art galleries banning to protect their paintings? Find out with Neil and Harry
Episode 150319 / 19 Mar 2015
An electronic device under your skin?! Workers in Sweden take part in experiment which allows them to get in and out of their office without a key, ID or password. Listen to Neil and Harry’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150312 / 12 Mar 2015
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. He is known throughout the world for his role in defeating Nazi Germany but he also made mistakes. Listen to Neil and Mike’s discussion, and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 150305 / 05 Mar 2015
We live in a richer world. But the gap between rich and poor is still very wide in individual countries. How to change this? Listen to Rob and Harry’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150226 / 26 Feb 2015
The price of vaccines has escalated and some poor countries are struggling to prevent children from catching certain life-threatening diseases, says Medecins Sans Frontieres. Listen to Rob and Neil’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150219 / 19 Feb 2015
Will thinking computers be the end of humans? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150212 / 12 Feb 2015
About 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this season. But should they be going to a region with such a sensitive environment? Listen to Rob and Neil’s conversation and learn some new vocabulary.
Episode 150205 / 05 Feb 2015
At a time when more people compete for fewer jobs, are you sure you present your skills and abilities well to a potential employer? Listen to Rob and Neil's conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150129 / 29 Jan 2015
Going to a party where you don't know anyone? Listen to Rob and Neil's advice and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150122 / 22 Jan 2015
We use computers for everything nowadays. Are we forgetting our own abilities - and losing our talent? Listen to Rob and Neil's discussion, and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150115 / 15 Jan 2015
Smoking in cars with children might be banned in England. Listen to Neil and Rob's chat and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150108 / 08 Jan 2015
Is bullying just an attempt to give a bad name to what is part of human nature? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150101 / 01 Jan 2015
What would you put in your time capsule? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141225 / 25 Dec 2014
When enemy soldiers sang together in WW1. Listen to Rob and Finn’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 141218 / 18 Dec 2014
The London school where students speak 42 different languages
Episode 141211 / 11 Dec 2014
Laughter isn't always the best medicine, says research
Episode 141204 / 04 Dec 2014
Are your pictures, documents and videos safe online? Listen to Rob and Finn's chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141127 / 27 Nov 2014
Nowhere to park? How the sharing economy is changing the way we use our space
Episode 141120 / 20 Nov 2014
How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future
Episode 141113 / 13 Nov 2014
Why is eating meat bad news?
Episode 141106 / 06 Nov 2014
Do real-life superheroes exist or are they just cartoon characters?
Episode 141030 / 30 Oct 2014
Rob and Finn discuss the World Health Organisation's recommendations on e-cigarettes
Episode 141023 / 23 Oct 2014
Should we eat less sugar? Listen to Rob and Neil and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141016 / 16 Oct 2014
Is learning English getting easier? Find out what's new
Episode 141009 / 09 Oct 2014
Why do we buy so much food and not eat it all? Learn more about food waste
Episode 141002 / 02 Oct 2014
Is it right to sleep at work? Rob and Finn discuss the benefits of sleeping on the job.
Episode 140929 / 29 Sep 2014
Is the way we see famous people a new thing? Learn about the first 'modern celebrity'.
Episode 140821 / 21 Aug 2014
Bored? You're not alone. Rob and Finn discuss how to deal with boredom and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won't be bored!
From the Archive
Episode 210204 / 04 Feb 2021
Can a woollen hat make a difference when you are cold?